August 30, 2023
If you wander down the ammo aisle looking for a hunting cartridge, there will be no shortage of choices! What brand do you go with? Which grain? Which design? After we go through that trouble the first time, we tend to stick to what works for us. For me, that was 150-grain Remington Core-Lokt Pointed Soft Points; but when I walk through that aisle now, all I can find are ballistic-tipped Core-Lokts! That got me wondering if they were better and why they seem to be so much more popular.
Of course, I had to try them out myself and see what other hunters had to say. They have some distinct advantages, but sometimes they didn't treat me as well as softpoints. Like any other hunter, I want to use the best equipment I can for the job. So instead of staying stuck in my ways, I decided to dive into the real differences between them and figure out which one was truly better for the whitetail hunter.
The biggest difference between ballistic-tipped bullets and pointed softpoints is obviously how they are constructed. In a nutshell, the classic softpoint has a lead core and a lead tip and is held together with a copper jacket. When it impacts the target, that lead point squishes back into the bullet's core and promotes expansion. This simple operation has been working exceptionally well for over a century, and its use will not slow down any time soon.
Ballistic-tipped bullets are relatively new compared to softpoints. They first came out in the 1980s but didn't quite catch on in the hunting industry. After several improvements over the next 30 years or so, ballistic-tipped rifle cartridges became a real competitor on ammo shelves around the country.
A ballistic tip works nearly the same way a hollowpoint works in your self-defense pistol. Regular hollowpoints have been used for decades in pistols to dump as much energy as possible in as little distance as possible into the target. This is perfect for self-defense because we want to stop any threat we are firing at as quickly as possible in a self-defense situation, but that is not identical to deer hunting.
If you shoot Hornady Critical Defense like I do, you will notice it also has a soft polymer tip, but this is where pistol and rifle rounds differ. The tips in these pistol rounds help them get through soft materials like clothing and open up faster when they actually hit something hard. In ballistic-tipped rifle cartridges, the tip is designed to help with flight ballistics – hence the name – as well as expansion when it hits the target.
This is where the ballistic tips shine, but not as much as you might think. Besides helping with expansion, the little polymer tip in these bullets dramatically increases the round's ballistic coefficient (BC). If you look at 150-grain Remington Core-Lokt .308s, the ballistic-tipped cartridge has a 32 percent higher BC than the softpoint version. Over range, this will allow the bullet to retain more energy because it loses less energy to drag. More energy means the bullet flies faster for longer, and you get a flatter shooting cartridge that could deliver more energy to the target.
This large difference in the ballistic coefficient is the main selling point of ballistic-tipped cartridges. However, if you look at the velocities in the table above, it doesn't make a significant difference before you reach around 300 yards. The fact is, most whitetail hunters rarely shoot anything farther than 100 yards away, especially on the dense East Coast.
If you regularly take longer shots, the ballistic-tipped bullets make more sense. Western hunters chasing mule deer or elk could benefit from the added velocity, but for the East Coast hunter, it may not help that much. For me, this is where it was obvious that external ballistics were not as important as terminal ballistics for this comparison. In layman's terms, the two designs fly the same for the average whitetail hunter, so which one performs the best when it actually hits the chest cavity?
Expansion and Penetration
Here is where community experience comes into play. You can shoot at ballistics gel all day long, and it will tell you some great information, but it can’t beat the trends in what thousands of hunters report after using a product. After reading through the forums, and making a few posts of my own, I found out that the majority of hunters had the same experience I did. Let’s start with softpoints.
After a successful day starts wrapping up and I’m skinning a deer, I would say that I find a softpoint bullet in a deer about 10 percent of the time. When you’re holding it, it is easy to see how it mushroomed out to about twice as big as it started. If you weighed it, you would see that it retained most of its metal, only leaving behind pieces of jacket every now and again.
You need expansion when you hit the target, but you also want plenty of penetration. Softpoints are a solid balance of that. You still deliver a ton of energy on impact, but you also keep dispersing a large amount of energy throughout the chest cavity. Most of these bullets that I have found in deer are stuck under the skin on the opposite side of the entry hole. This shows that even on the samples that didn’t fully penetrate—which may have impacted a shoulder or multiple ribs—they still penetrated through the vitals.
Ballistic-tipped rounds tend to expand slightly more, though. Of course, it isn't a crazy difference when looking at two otherwise identical cartridges, but it's there. When a ballistic-tipped bullet hits the target, that polymer tip all but disintegrates. Then our boattail starts acting more like a hollowpoint and starts to open up. What I have experienced—and what many other hunters report—is that these bullets tend to open up very quickly and disperse most of their energy in the first few inches of the target.
Even when you look at ballistic gel, the tipped bullets will have a large wound channel to start, but it shrinks up quite a bit as the bullet penetrates. Softpoints will have a slightly smaller but longer wound channel. As they open up on impact, ballistic tips also tend to fragment a bit more, creating huge entrance holes and ruining more meat than softpoints. That was my first observation when I used them; I ruined shoulders that I didn't directly hit.
It's not all bad, though, these rounds are still highly effective, and you get enough penetration to put down a whitetail efficiently. While fragmentation is bad, ballistic-tipped rounds have slightly more metal to lose than softpoints. By replacing its lead nose with polymer, you will save some weight. Although these bullets still have to be the correct grain, so the rest of the bullet is slightly heavier.
Making Blood Trails
So, what does the difference in terminal ballistics mean for deer retrieval? Well, on the rare occasion that you can’t text your buddy, “He didn’t go 20!” you want to have a bright blood trail to follow. How good of a blood trail you have depends on where your shot placement, but assuming you make a good shot, is a ballistic tip or softpoint going to leave a better trail? In a perfect world, they both make great blood trails, but sometimes those shots aren’t as clean as we would like them to be.
The key to getting a good blood trail is getting total penetration. I mentioned before that I find about 10 percent of my softpoints because they don’t totally penetrate if they hit a lot of bone. I have never found a ballistic-tipped bullet while skinning, but I also haven’t always achieved a complete pass-through with ballistic tips. Sometimes those bullets can hit the shoulder or other bone and totally fragment, not leaving much more than shrapnel to find in the carcass. This causes a lot of damage in the immediate area and can certainly kill, but it can make finding your deer a little tougher.
If the bullet totally fragments, your deer might not leave much of a blood trail at all. There have been plenty of reports of hunters hitting deer with ballistic tips and finding nothing but hair, only to see the deer a few days later on camera with a nasty flesh wound caused by excess fragmentation and little to no penetration. Of course, deer are funny animals, and they are tougher than we expect sometimes, so this is not a phenomenon unique to ballistic tips, but it does seem to happen more often.
It’s also possible that a ballistic-tipped bullet totally fragments before it ever reaches your target. If you hit a twig or try to shoot through a small amount of brush, some hunters have reported that ballistic tips aren’t up to the task. Softpoints will fragment a bit or start to tumble if you hit thick brush, but they usually come out on the other side in pieces big enough to kill. I always suggest taking nothing but a clean shot, but if you hunt in a thick area, that is something to think about.
The Price Difference
Whether manufacturers are taking advantage of the hype around ballistic-tipped bullets with their better ballistic coefficients and velocities at range, or they truly cost more to produce, the fact is, ballistic-tipped cartridges are considerably more expensive than their softpoint counterparts. However, I wouldn’t say this is a huge problem for whitetail hunters. The majority of hunters are not shooting multiple boxes of ammo a year. I have picked up my deer rifle for the first time in a year on opening day before, and I know I’m not alone.
(insert chart 2)
After finding some pricing data on some popular calibers, I was surprised to see that you can sometimes expect to pay over 45 percent more for ballistic tips than softpoints! That is definitely a significant amount, but if you shoot the right cartridge, ballistic tips may only be about 15 percent more expensive. That is much less noticeable if a box lasts you a season or more. Although if you shoot your rifle regularly, you could save a chunk of change by going with softpoints.
Which Is the Best Whitetail Bullet?
After looking at external ballistics, terminal ballistics, price differences, and gathering the community's consensus, is a ballistic tip or pointed softpoint the best whitetail bullet? Well, for the average whitetail hunter who regularly keeps their shots under 200 yards, a pointed soft point is ideal. You get better penetration and less fragmentation, plus you save a little money.
However, that is not to say that no one should use ballistic tips. Their main advantage is in long-range shooting. If you are shooting targets farther than 300 yards away, you will get more than a 10 percent boost in velocity without changing anything about your cartridge other than what the bullet is tipped with. That translates into significantly more energy on your target at range. Although under that 300-yard mark, they fly about the same as softpoints and fragment more. That leads to dryer blood trails and more ruined meat. Either bullet will kill, but I know what will be in my rifle come November.